In a descent world-wide, there is always the temptation( and the fuel) to focus on the macabre and the dramatically pain, letting the small and beautiful pass by, unnoticed and uncelebrated.
So it is with the apparition and letter behind the Basilica of Our Lady of Walsingham. While it seems foolish to imagine that Our Lady, the most Queen of Heaven, would stoop be provided in a superhuman vision to someone, and that the very heart of her otherworldly theme would be swallowed up in somber worldliness, this is precisely the demise the Walsingham apparition virtually suffered.
Today, one can visit the adolescent basilica, affectionately known as “The Slipper Chapel”. This chapel was once only a small part of the Walsingham pilgrimage site and was the place where the faithful would stop and remove their shoes to walk the last mile barefooted before arriving at their eventual end. For nearly 500 times, unnumbered, unshod wanderers went up to a site that first harboured a meagre wooden room, then a small stone priory, then a much larger building with four gilded skyscrapers and a relic of St. Peter’s finger. A structure that once inspired a Prior to invest so much money on its betters that he was dismissed, and evenly caused the famed humanist Erasmus to write a prayer in Our Lady’s honor.
A building that, thanks to the wars and greed of gentleman , no longer stands today. Now, the remnants are ashes, the discoloured glass demolished, and the imported stones carried down and carted apart. Today, the most structure that Our Lady once requested to be constructed is gone. All that is left is the chapel where long-dead devotees removed their shoes to trample holy ground.
The source for the death is a familiar one to students of history. The English Reformation, begun by Henry VIII and followed through by his daughter, Elizabeth I, been successful in innumerable martyrs for the faith, termination of holy objects, and confiscation of Church property. The pilgrimage area of Walsingham wasn’t gave Henry’s wrath, and today, all that remains is the East Window, an unseeing see into the sins of the past.
But if we continue even farther back into history–before the burns and extinction of the Reformation, before the large gilded priory, before the smallest first priory–we attend a meagre mansion, built upon a small dry space between two reservoirs. And if we continue in reverse, we realise a young, rich widow, being visited by the Blessed Virgin Mary, and being shown that first dwelling, in a small dusty space in Nazareth, where Heaven broke through to Earth because of a freely given “yes”.
The Story of Walsingham
Walsingham is, at its heart, the story of Our Lady’s fiat. In 1061, a holy widow by the name of Richeldis de Faverches desired to do something special to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary. Her wish was granted in the form of three mysterious visits, where Mary came to the young widow and uncovered the home in Nazareth where the Archangel Gabriel sounded during the Annunciation. Our Lady assignment the Englishwoman with creating a imitation in Walsingham, predicting that “whoever endeavours my help there will not go away empty handed”.
De Faverches made the instructions to heart, and had creation begin immediately. When human struggles ran into architectural and engineering predicaments, celestial aid hastened in, with the tradition holding that de Faverches heard singing one darknes and appeared out her window to see the structure , now completed and in a different location than planned, with two angels leaving the construction zone.
Eventually, to protect it from the elements, the wooden formation was encased by the first stone priory. Then, as devotees flocked to it, a larger one, with the ardour and destroyer of the Reformation ultimately generating everything there is down. But to focus on these aspects misses the moment of Our Lady’s request. Mary solicited a replication of the site of the Annunciation to be made. To drive home the importance of the Incarnation, the Mother of God asked for the physical site of her fiat to be celebrated.
What a shocking thing for people who want to keep God in exclusively spiritual and academic realms! To imagine that a geographical space would matter to God, to think that He may feel tendernes for a humble lie situate? For those who hold God at arm’s length, and feel safer when He is “On High” and not cracking through into our daily, physical world, imagining that He notices and responds to earthly buildings is a dangerous thought.
Today, little of the original Walsingham site remains. The humble wooden replication of Our Lady’s Nazarene home is long, long gone. But perhaps all is not lost. Perhaps we modern epoch wanderers can interrupt, and reflect on where we demonstrated our specific, individual fiats to Christ. Perhaps, if we steeped the physical locales of our self-conscious changeovers with holiness and righteousnes, the whole world would become a pilgrimage site, and no sum of fervour or termination could take it away from us.
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